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Photography and Public Image

Photographs of public figures or celebrities often reinforce their personas rather than reveal the real person behind the public image, but sometimes photographers manage to break through the facade.

President Lincoln

Mathew B. Brady (studio of)
(American, 1823–1896)

1867. Albumen silver print, 3 5/16 x 2 1/16" (8.5 x 5.3 cm)

One of the earliest American photographers and the owner of a successful photography studio, Mathew B. Brady photographed celebrities, presidents, and, most famously, scenes of his country’s Civil War. From 1860 to 1864, his studio made more than 30 portraits of President Abraham Lincoln. Among them is this thoughtful and introspective image, made when the president had been in office for two years, and one year into the Civil War. President Lincoln understood the power of these portraits and used photography to his advantage, acknowledging, “Brady and The Cooper Union speech made me president of the United States.”

Many of Brady’s photographs of President Lincoln were reproduced on buttons and posters and, in the case of this image, as cartes de visites. These pocket-sized photographs served as visual calling cards and were an inexpensive and popular way of distributing portraits and self-portraits, which people often collected in albums. Those picturing President Lincoln—in particular a portrait taken on February 27, 1860, after the speech at The Cooper Union, in New York City, that launched his presidential campaign—sold widely. Cartes de visites became a valuable political tool. For the first time in history, they enabled a broad segment of the American public to actually see their presidential candidates (an ability taken for granted today).

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

A representation of oneself made by oneself.

A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.

Small handheld photographic cards, first popularized in the 1850s. Inexpensive and mass-produced, these cards depicted individual or celebrity portraits, and were popularly traded or collected in albums.

Touch-ups Fit for a President
Brady touched-up many of his portraits of President Lincoln to correct such slight physical abnormalities as his wandering eye. The resulting images helped to dispel rumors that the tall and awkward Lincoln suffered from serious physical deformities.